Monday, April 07, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Ordinary People

Ordinary People (1980) 9/10
The Jarrett family is recovering from the death of their older son. The younger son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), has recently come home from a mental institution after a suicide attempt. Parents Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) struggle to connect to their surviving son and to each other. Directed by Robert Redford.

My sister has been trying to get me to see this film for years. So here I finally am.

Before I get into the movie, can we talk about Debut Central? Timothy Hutton's first film. Elizabeth McGovern's first film (Gods, I love her). Redford's directorial debut (for which he won an Oscar). Mary Tyler Moore's first dramatic film role (after debuting as a dramatic actress 2 years earlier in a made-for-TV breast cancer weepie). Taken as a whole, this is a very impressive bunch of firsts.

Some people don't like what they call "psychobabble" movies. I've seen that complaint about Ordinary People. But look; it's just s a mistake to watch a movie wherein the central relationship is between a boy and his psychiatrist, and expect it to be about something other than psychology. So yes, there will be revelations and discoveries, and yes there will be hidden rage that will come to the surface, and yes, talk therapy will be utilized. This is simply not the movie for you if that's not interesting or appealing.

Part of my hesitation about seeing this movie (I mean, it's been 27 years) was that it would be, well, depressing. Part of it was the opposite, that it would be feel-good, everything's all better now that we talked to a shrink and we all love each other again and gosh I feel good. Well, neither is true. The movie is only depressing if the fact that there's such a thing as depression is unbearable. Conrad's struggles with his feelings are fervent and anguished, but the struggle, the choice to try to recover, the effort to climb out, is full of nobility and hope. He wants a life. He wants a girlfriend (McGovern); he wants to form connections, he wants desperately to move on. And yes, he's sad and confused, but he also learns all too plainly that putting on the false happy-face that everyone seems to demand of him has terrible consequences.

Hutton is the star of this film, but the most fascinating character is Mary Tyler Moore's Beth. She is frozen into a very specific place; she cannot change or interact beyond what has already happened. Her son's efforts to change are therefore terribly threatening. It's easy enough to play a cold character, but Beth's coldness is complex and layered. What gets me is how she accepts it. She hasn't the equipment to process her feelings or experiences beyond what she's already done, and she doesn't reach for that equipment; she simply resents that others have it and want it of her. She is the opposite of Conrad; all false front and performance. In allowing her character to be relentless; committed to rigidity as if it were her dearest friend, Redford keeps his movie from being sticky-sweet. Every time you long for one of those Lifetime Channel breakthroughs, Beth defies you. She challenges you to believe that her way is actually better. This honesty of character is so rare, and so remarkable, that it really makes the movie.

(Ordinary Cross-post)